Mick Brookes: New NAHT head revving up for the battle ahead
The election of Mick Brookes to the top job at the National Association of Head Teachers has put the union at loggerheads with ministers. Richard Garner meets him
Thursday 27 April 2006
There are not many seasoned head teachers who play in a rock band and ride a 1,000cc motor bike, but Mick Brookes, 57, is one. Or rather was one. He has had to put the rock band on hold for now and the bike in cold storage because he is the new general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT).
Giving up the bad boy image has been an emotional business. He had been playing bass in the Rockets for 25 years, singing the blues and the odd Dire Straits number.
"I came to the decision in the summer I just couldn't do the two," he says. "It wasn't fair on the band or my wife, Karen."
But you could argue that the bad boy side is manifesting itself in other ways. Brookes may not charge about on a Honda or pick up a bass any longer but he is taking on the Government in no uncertain terms. His opposition to the workload agreement giving teachers ten per cent time off for marking and lesson preparation has put him at serious loggerheads with ministers. Tomorrow, at his first annual conference to be held in Harrogate, Brookes and the NAHT will face a boycott by ministers and civil servants. This is the first time in years that no representative has turned up from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), a fact that rankles with the new general secretary.
Brookes thinks that the boycott is "petty" and reflects the "patrician" approach of the Labour government. "It's likely to harden attitudes, not to change them," he says ominously.
The conflict is a big break with the past and shows how much the teacher union landscape is changing. Just as Chris Keates' appointment to the top job at the National Association of Schoolmasters Unions of Women Teachers has seen that union cuddle up to the Government in contrast to the past, so Brookes's appointment has seen the NAHT take a new rebellious stance.
Brookes has a hard act to follow the clever and articulate David Hart, a lawyer who held the post for 27 years. And his style is quite different to that of his predecessor.
For a start, he won the job after campaigning to pull the union out of the Government's workload agreement in defiance of Hart's wishes.
He believed it was essential to highlight that head teachers' workloads were increasing because of the agreement. This is a result of heads having to release teachers to spend ten per cent of the working day out of the classroom to concentrate on marking and preparation. Many heads end up standing in for their teachers.
Second, he is the first primary school head to do the job of general secretary. He has been head of Sherwood Junior School, serving a mining community in Nottingham, for the past 20 years. "I think my educational background will be one of the keys to my leadership," he says. "The things I need to learn from David are his consummate skills as a politician."
He loves his new job, he says. He won it after defeating the candidate favoured by the union's national executive, David Hawker, a former senior officer of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and director of education at Brighton, who wanted to stay in the social partnership with ministers. The whole union membership had earlier backed Mick Brookes' stance in a close vote against the advice of his predecessor, David Hart.
He approached his first national council meeting, therefore, with some trepidation. "It was like going to your first governors' meeting as a head teacher, knowing that you hadn't been their preferred candidate," he says.
However, the council have been nothing but supportive for his stand, which he has maintained despite exhortations and veiled threats. In their first interview, the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly told him forcefully that it would be in the NAHT's interests to return to the social partnership. He now knows what that meant. The DfES is not even sending an observer to the conference or mounting a stand in its exhibition hall. It is the complete cold shoulder.
"It's extraordinary, especially at a time when Jacqui Smith, the school standards minister, has said she wants a dialogue with heads, that the Department cut themselves off from the union that represents two-thirds of heads," he says.
"Boycotting our conference really doesn't hold water at all."
Within the union itself he is trying to delegate as much as possible and to foster a team approach, he says. Hence his deputy, Carol Whitty, the former head of a secondary school, and Rona Tutt, an ex-president of the union who had been head of a special school in Hertfordshire, are leading for it on special needs.
At first glance, Gordon Brown's Budget looked as though it gave the union an opportunity to come back into the fold, he says. That was because of extra cash going direct into school coffers and the pledge to bring state school funding in line with the private sector's.
However, a closer scrutiny of the Chancellor's proposals shows that much of the money will be earmarked for the poorer performing schools in areas of urban deprivation.
Mick Brookes does not want to deprive them of extra funding but feels that large numbers of schools in the suburbs will struggle to implement the Government's new teachers' contract. Research to be published at the union's annual conference will show that, while there has been a reduction in class sizes for five to seven-year-olds, there are growing numbers of classes of over 30 (even 35) in Key stages two and three (7 to 11-year-olds and 11 to 14-year-olds). That is why he cannot recommend a return to the social partnership, he says. In his travels around the country he has found many heads taking early retirement because of the new demands put on them. "Literally thousands of schools are being run without a permanent leadership team," he says.
One of the new pressures comes from the extended schools programme with heads expected to open schools from 8am to 6pm to provide childcare. "There is a feeling that the children are better off in the school than in the home," he says. "It's really creating a national baby-sitting service.
"I'm not against it but again it seems a patrician approach. Children want to talk with their friends in the evening and relax at home." He recalls trying to start a breakfast club at his former school.
Of the 206 parents he wrote to about it, only 23 replied - and two of them were angry that it seemed to suggest they were not feeding their children properly at home. "The school was charging £1 for the breakfast and only three or four children turned up." The experiment was abandoned. His other worry is over Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, that is in danger of losing its independence, he thinks. Its new inspection regime, giving two days warning of an impending visit, has been welcomed by many schools, but the increasing powers it is being given by ministers worry him.
After Jamie Oliver's campaign on school dinners, Ofsted was told to monitor meals. From September, this will mean monitoring provision - looking, especially, at whether school vending machines stock unhealthy foods. It will also have to look at how far heads have extended school hours. Brookes fears that will lead to black marks for schools that do not toe the Government line. "You can change the number of inspections, the number of days they take and the number of days' warning you get," he says. "But, unless you change the culture, it will still be seen as an imposition and an inquisition by many people."
The new general secretary also believes that requiring all teachers to use synthetic phonics to teach children to read from September is too prescriptive. "My granddaughter, Millie, aged two and a half, didn't learn to read by synthetic phonics," he says. "She has a real fascination for books - and she will be able to read by the time she starts school."
During the week Brookes lives in a flat near the NAHT's offices in Haywards Heath. To remind him of his previous life in a rock band, he has taken his acoustic guitar to the flat and unwinds by playing it in the evening.
He is even contemplating forming a band with some of his NAHT colleagues. One gig they won't be playing any time soon is live at the Sanctuary Buildings - headquarters of the DfES.
Life of an old school rocker
Education: Fullbrook County Secondary School, West Byfleet - head boy 1965-66.
Teacher's Certificate, King Alfred's College, Winchester.
Employment: 1970-1: Worked on a kibbutz in Israel.
1971-2: Paraffin salesman, Chiswick and Acton
1972-6: Teacher, Liss County Junior School, Hampshire.
1976-8: Deputy head, Gosberton Primary School, Lincolnshire.
1978-85: Head, Gosberton, Clogh and Risegate Primary School.
1985-2005: Head, Sherwood Junior School, Nottingham.
2005-: General Secretary, NAHT.
Family: Married to Karen, also a headteacher with whom he has two daughters, Natalie, 20, and Rachel, 17. He also has a son Jamie, 29, and a granddaughter, Millie, two. RG
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